A recent advertisement for AT&T’s Digital Life home automation service features two teenagers meeting their parents at a lake cabin for the weekend after stopping by the family home. “Did you leave the house in good shape?” the father asks, checking his phone only to discover that the children left the faucet running, the television blasting, every light in the house on, and the door unlocked.
In theory, the advertisement is demonstrating the value of smart home technology, including the implication that home automation is a fantastic corrective to bad parenting. But in reality, the advertisement plays into one of our greatest insecurities: That we are somehow too immature, and unworthy of home ownership. AT&T suggests that without this ultimate remote control tool, our houses are vulnerable to all manner of flooding and theft. Equally disturbing, the technology introduces new paranoia into the parent-child relationship: incessant monitoring, the constant presence of a scornful eye. Gone are the days of TV marathons while mom and dad are out to dinner.
The words “home automation” stir images of stainless steel, voice-activated systems, the staples of so many sci-fi movies. We imagine holographic touch screen panels and showerheads that power on automatically three minutes after our last alarm goes off. We dream of the technology in Spike Jonze’s Her—an artificial intelligence system that is not only designed to coax us out of bed in time for morning meetings, but that also seems to know our personalities and our routines as intimately as we know them ourselves. We want a one-of-a-kind algorithm that will streamline our lives.
But the reality of this soon-to-be $70 billion industry is far less elegant. Currently, one of the most universal smart home services uses your smart phone to turn on or off the lights in your home. Other services are similarly mundane. You can preheat your oven using your phone, in case you’re the kind of person who likes cooking three course dinners but hates turning dials. Or you can monitor the status of a propane gas tank, for those who never learned to read a meter. Or, for the social media junkies, you can now tweet from a touch panel on your fridge. These seem a bit lackluster compared to the image of a robot bringing us coffee in bed.
This is not to say that smart home technology is completely worthless: Google’s Nest developed a remote controlled thermostat, and AT&T’s service allows users to activate home security systems from anywhere. But the desire to automate seems to have outrun the need for automation. Smart home technology reached a new level of absurdity in GE’s brilliant collaboration with Quirky to develop an egg tray that alerts users when they run out of eggs in their fridge. The technology simulates an artificial state of emergency around not knowing how many eggs are left in our refrigerator: What if you are unable to satisfy your strange craving for a six-egg omelet after a long day at the Goldman offices?
In fact, the entire home automation market is a breeding ground for various Woody Allen-like neuroses: Days will be spent checking smart home apps to make sure that front door locks are engaged and all appliances are off. The question “did I leave the lights on?” will no longer be a minor nag, but will become a compulsive workplace distraction. We will wake up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat because we can’t remember whether we set the thermostat to 70 or to 68 degrees. Speaking of which, did I leave my blender on this morning?
Even the most basic smart home technology is error-prone. This past Christmas, my apartment ended up with a power strip by Quirky. The strip allowed us to turn appliances on or off from our phones. Installing it, however, meant that the lamps in the apartment would only erratically obey the light switch on the wall. Quirky’s Wink power strip became a nuisance.
A study on life in smart homes by a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University in England concluded that home automation is more than just a source of anxiety; despite everything this technology aspires to, smart homes may also be a major inconvenience. Study participants were frustrated by having to flip through tablet menus in order to turn a single light on or off. Participants were also annoyed that automated washing machines were harder to operate, and that the smart home technology was not easily overridden. Another complaint was that the technology seemed to be only a small improvement over what already exists: One home cook suggested a self-regulating oven able to interpret recipes would be more helpful than a digital cookbook. In spite of these potential smart home headaches, another study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University indicates that we will continue to be seduced by the promise of glitzy high tech homes, and that home automation will become the second largest home remodeling trend in the near future.
The term Smart Home or Home Automation is perhaps a misnomer: The technology is still very much do-it-yourself. My bedside alarm clock cannot yet activate my coffee machine, nor will turning off my shower in the morning drop the lever of my toaster. The theme of home automation is not automation because we can but automation because we almost can. Nest, for example, one of the flashiest names in smart home technology, developed a smoke detector that is three times as expensive as the one recommended by the FDNY. The cheaper detector can, like the Nest, differentiate between cooking smoke and a real threat, and can also detect carbon dioxide. Nest’s will tell you what room the fire is in, but only after you’ve programmed the device to know the room in which you’ve placed it. The smart technology is not necessarily any smarter than the standard, although it is much sleeker, which, in the end, is perhaps what matters most. And because now the infringement of privacy seems to be one of the greatest concerns for to American public, this choice of sleek and high-tech over practical seems even more misguided: A recent study by HP finds that many popular smart home devices are vulnerable to hackers. Which is to say, you can never really know who else is counting your eggs or turning on your faucets.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. He has written for The New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. He is also the author of Twitterature (Penguin).